BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor; Symphony No. 3 in F Major

by | Nov 24, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor; Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Leonard Bernstein conducts The Israel Philharmonic
Studio: EuroArts DVD 2072048
Video: 4:3 full screen, Color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 94 minutes
Rating: ****

Recorded at the Great Concert Hall, Jerusalem, 1-3 August 1973, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and the Israel Philharmonic open the Brahms C Minor Symphony with no preliminaries; merely a bow and a downbeat, and the camera superimposes the rolling tympani against Bernstein’s rapt countenance. For the main theme and its syncopations, Bernstein conducts, eyes closed, jaw set, and the first violin and woodwinds appear in profile. A solemn march, Bernstein takes the Brahms Allegro quite deliberately, his baton doing most of the work, with an occasional fist to his mouth or chin for a softer sound. Animated, but still within restrained limits, Bernstein’s gestures remain economical; but he does accelerate the repeat of the Allegro, a decision that expands the movement’s breadth to almost seventeen minutes. For the punctuations prior to the tremolandi motifs in the development, Bernstein does perform a half-leap off the podium. The tonal vibrancy of the IPO is rich, not so lean as conductors Mehta and Benzi produced. The camera lingers on the bassoons and the basses as the slow crescendo, a ripe, mounting explosion a la Furtwaengler releases, Bernstein all grimaces and both arms in full rotation. The recapitulation marches forward, but never quite free of its self-conscious emotional reserve. Nice shot of the oboes and clarinets in profile; then, a hush as the French horn sets up the last of the set of violin thrusts in syncopation–then to the coda, a camera shot from the back of the orchestra, the burnished violins in melancholy sweetness, his face already beaded with energetic perspiration.

The Andante unfolds rather slowly, almost adagio, the cameras trained on the violins and oboe. Baton held steady at shoulder length, Bernstein leads with the left hand, molding the phrases. Gorgeous singing line in the strings, Bernstein all tensed in response and anticipation of the elastic, melodic line that extends again into the oboe and clarinet. The bucolic elements struggle against the dark, demonic forces, and now the baton becomes rhythmic and melodic at once. The baton imitates the violins’ strokes for a legato sound, and Bernstein uses eye contact to usher in the concertmaster’s plaintive solo. French horn and violin juxtaposed in the two cameras, then pull back for Bernstein’s direction of the closing bars, the violin, French horn and Bernstein sharing the visual honors until the woodwinds and plucked strings carry us away in the ether.

Woodwinds open the five-bar phrases of the Allegretto grazioso, Bernstein with tender smiles. Strings and French horn on camera, then Bernstein and the string and wind complement. Bernstein opens the tempo, his wrists lithely dancing. Middle section opens misterioso, the two French horns in profile, then Bernstein surrounded by strings in full splendor with the brass. Bernstein coaxes rather than insists on the melody, then he cuts loose for the horn punctuations, reminiscent of movement one. Da capo in the clarinets, a quiet sound from the strings. Round gestures to the strings and horns with their three-chord motif. A slow turn and the movement is over.

No segue to the ominous Adagio of the last movement, shades of Beethoven’s Ninth. An incredible ppp for the pizzicato opening that becomes more manic as it moves to the tympani and arco strings. The huge pedal in the doublebasses, then all Bernstein and his fluttering baton to usher in the agitation prior to the tympani and the big horn call from deep in the Black Forest. Flute answer, along with French horn and winds then the brass; now we are ready for the main theme, our old friend. All strings, an ocean of milky-cream sound. Camera move to the winds, then to Bernstein’s delicate gestures. The development ensues, more martial, Bernstein’s baton and left fist busy at work, until he invites the flute and strings to soften the affect. Oboe and clarinets, then Bernstein winds up the energies again, tympani and Bernstein competing for the camera. Bernstein bends his knees for a big dip prior to the restatement of the main theme. Again, the sea of violins and a fade into Bernstein’s face, his back bent over, leaning hard into the vying components of the developmental counterpoint. The baton breaks into the martial element, and now horns and tympani and frenzied violins, the dogs of war, are let loose. Huge climax, and the French horn and Bernstein share the camera while the tympani pounds underneath. Extended final section with its own development, the camera behind Bernstein, and the strings in disciplined, uniform motion. Four French horns and the strings in the ionosphere, as the tympani and doublebasses bring up the tumultuous depths of expression. Now the leash is off, and Bernstein chugs the orchestra into the full brass annunciation and whirlwind coda, Bernstein’s baton more like Thor’s hammer and a two-hand baseball bat. The audience is already in raptures before the last two chords have decayed.

Bernstein opens the F Major/F minor ambiguities of the Third Symphony with a vigorous downbeat, the camera cutting to the brass, the woodwinds, and the strings. Clarinet for the secondary theme, Bernstein cradling his baton for a waltz-like tempo. The right hand, free of baton, cues and writhes over the musical periods. The speedup in tempo has the baton back in the right hand, and the music moves swiftly; none of the heavy molasses that plague Bernstein’s commercial inscription with the Vienna Philharmonic. Bernstein takes the first movement repeat, and the dignity and melancholy suffuse their way, via the camera, to the back of the concert hall. Nice shot of the bassoon solo and the clarinet evolution of the melody through the flute. Large rounded gestures for the tender, bucolic interplay, under the strings move pizzicato. Now, for the development, the old Bernstein reveals himself, hopping on the podium, an expansive waltz accompanied by a chugging figure. Clear cue for the French horn and the static harmonies that shift toward the recapitulation through the clarinets, the cue an arm extended over the conductor’s mouth. Bassoons and tympani take us to a sweeping restatement of the main F-A-F motif. The quieter sections bask in the interplay of the musicians’ timbres. The tempo accelerates, and the cello line becomes more prominent, Bernstein’s baton now a saber leading a frenzied, contrapuntal waltz-march. Disembodied tympani strokes, and the waltz motif asserts its dominion, the melancholy thick enough to cut with that same conductor’s saber. The clarinets and strings swell under a shimmering left hand from Bernstein, and the F-A-F motto brings the movement to a valedictory close.

Clarinets and bassoon for the Andante, one of the most beautiful movements Brahms ever wrote. Strings reply, and Bernstein is all hands, baton tucked behind the left hand, hidden. The melodic line soars in a direct line, no cloying rubato. Small caressing circles for the middle section, a touch of mystery. Eyes closed, Bernstein has his left hand and baton across his lips. Now the circles intensify as the sequences in Brahms build up and down, moving another climax that ends with the four-beat motif that returns in the final movement. The camera pans the middle of the orchestra and settles on the clarinet, Bernstein all smiles and soft gestures to the French horns and the final swell of the strings.

The Poco Allegretto has a solidly set Bernstein opening with a big, right gesture and pulling in all his strings for the brisk statement of the melancholy theme, almost andante. Basses and clarinet have the camera, the flute joining in. The dainty secondary theme, almost balletic, becomes a somber song, and Bernstein’s left hand flutters, asking for more intensity. Bernstein keeps switching the baton from hand to hand, wanting to mold the melody line directly; the French horn comes out large with the full statement in one gulp. The oboe picks up the theme, the celli pizzicato. Bernstein keeps his hands chest and face high, very tight; then he expands his gestures to let the sad, drooping figures melt our hearts.

From behind the strings’ desks, we see Bernstein opening the menacing pulse of the Allegro finale; the strings and horns setting up the first explosion of sound. Bernstein uses his right hand baton like a sledge, driving the music forward into its animated quick-march. Four French horns in profile, part of a resplendent sound. The first period ends, and the music starts again in the winds but now slowed down, everything mezzo forte. Bernstein sets up the next period of string attacks with a left hand sweep to the side; then the Beethoven 5th fanfares open, the trumpets in Technicolor. A big smile as we ascend to the Brahmsian heights, the march tempo having become heavy and insistent. Tugs of war in the strings and brass, Bernstein lulling the whole enterprise forward, the brass and tympani in vigorous form. The bassoon introduces the softer side of the movement’s detumescence, the winds and horns, the trumpets and trombones all resolving into the strings’ sighs, F-A-F rising from the gentle ashes like a veiled phoenix. No decay permitted before the audience erupts into unbridled applause.

— Gary Lemco

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